Monday, 24 August 2009

Hollywood Babble On & On #356: The Dreaded Meddle Detector

Welcome to the show folks.

I'm taking a break from griping about breaking news, and talking about how the people in charge of studios screw up, to take you on a different tack. One where I look at Hollywood history and off some advice on how to survive as a filmmaker.

Which is a whole new can of worms on its own.

You see one of the scourges of Hollywood filmmakers are the notes. In case you don't know, notes are the "suggestions," "ideas," and just plain butting in by the studio brass. Now some are very practical, like: "The cannibalism scene doesn't fit a romantic comedy," or "could you please stop using the word 'fuck' so much in the script for
High School Musical 4?" Other times notes are given simply because the executive feels they need to be doing or saying something to justify not only their salary and bonus, but also their existence with things like: "Does Green Lantern have to be green?" or "You hero needs a gay robot-dog as his sidekick," or "you need to include break-dancing into your adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, because I'm pretty sure it's set for a comeback."

Not all productions get the same amount of notes. You see studio executives have something I call the "Meddle Detector." The Meddle Detector is a lot like a metal detector, except instead of finding lost watches, bottle caps, and dropped change at the beach, this device, which I suspect is implanted behind the left ear immediately upon hiring, is designed to find reasons to butt in on a movie production.

There are ways to avoid the dreaded Meddle Detector, it's a series of tricks of the trade that filmmakers have used since the birth of the Hollywood studio system. John Ford used to go out to film a western in Monument Valley, hundreds of miles from the nearest studio suit, and too remote and isolated for them to bother coming down to pester him with notes. Sadly, that tactic doesn't work as effectively these days thanks to the technological advances that allow studio executives to study the daily video output, via the internet, and to bombard the filmmakers with e-mails, text messages, and cell phone calls, or, heaven forbid, actually travel out to the set.

That leaves really only one thing that can avoid the dreaded Meddle Detector, and like just about everything else in Hollywood, its foundation is money, money, money.

You see, money is the key. The more money invested in the movie, the more the needle on the old Meddle Detector swings into the red zone, inspiring the executives to bombard you with notes saying just how great your movie would be if it just had a jive talking alien struggling with illiteracy. This is because studio executives base just about everything on fear, they are scared of a big money flop costing them their jobs, and forcing them to sell their boat to tide them over until they get picked up by another studio. There is a direct correlation between a film's budget, and the quantity of notes, and an inverse correlation between the size of the budget, and the quality of those same notes.

If you don't want those notes, especially the really inane ones, you have to fly low, like a plane slipping in under enemy radar to sneak an elite team of hardened international commandos into hostile territory.

That means keeping your budget reasonable, in fact, the cheaper you can get it, the better your situation will be.

Just look at the directing career of Clint Eastwood. He deliberately keeps his budgets as lean as possible to keep the studios out of his hair, and his own vision on the screen. Just look at his record, the majority of his films were made for amounts normally used to pay the salary of one or two "A-List" actors. This puts his movies way below the range of the average studio exec's meddle detectors, because they have bigger and more glamorous fish to fry and will be too busy worrying about the number of butt shots in the $100 million romantic comedy starring Jennifer Lopez as the plucky ingenue who finds love in some sort of unlikely, yet cutesy way.

Now just keeping your prices low aren't going to keep them off your back at first.

First you need to build trust.

Wait, no, scratch that. Trust is the wrong word to use when discussing Hollywood. Trust is what studio moguls call the funds their daughters use to buy sports-cars to drive up light-poles, make bail, and buy purse sized chihuahuas. When it comes to real trust, well... it just doesn't exist in Hollywood.

I think the more accurate word to use would be

After a while if the studio
expects you to deliver your film on time, and well within the confines of a reasonable budget, they won't be as much of a pest as they are to so many others. I'm not saying that they will stay completely out of your hair, periodically some new kid on the block will try out a little territorial pissing, but if you have the right set of expectations behind you, this will happen less and less. (It will also end even quicker if you make any slowdowns or overruns look like the fault of the guy doing the meddling.)

It will also happen faster if the majority of your films are that right blend of profitability and critical acclaim. Because companies love consistency, so if they expect to make their money back and more, while getting a nice pat on the back from critics and awards committees, then Bob's your uncle.

Of course with all this comes great responsibility.

You, as a filmmaker, will have to be very strategic in your thinking. You can't let yourself go bug-shit crazy, even once, unless you plan to retire, or die, immediately afterward, because that will change Hollywood's expectations of you. Decades of moderate budgets, critical and popular acclaim, and regular profitability will be instantly forgotten because you decided to shoot your big budget epic entirely at dawn and dusk, even the night scenes and interiors, because you like the quality of the light, even though it means only shooting two hours a day,
if your lucky, thus exponentially blowing your budget, your schedule, and putting yourself square in the sights of every meddle detector in the business, and you will never, ever, ever be able to shake them off, ever.

So, to sum it all up:

Studio meddling= Pain in the ass.

Creating positive expectations around you and your career= Less ass pain.

But don't screw it up.

it's just that simple.


  1. Odd question - did somebody actually do that whole only-shooting-at-dusk thing?

  2. Terence Malick shot all the exteriors for the film Days of Heaven during the "magic hours" of dawn and dusk. (Which is really only 25 minutes two times a day, weather permitting)

    That, coupled with Malick's "shoot everything and fix it in the editing room" style of film-making caused the budget to go up by $800,000. (Which meant something in the 1970s) Now while the film was heavily praised, he didn't make another film for 20 years.

  3. Magic Time was also done by Michael Cimino and his film Heaven's Gate which racked up costs along to the point he ruined United Artists and his entire career. He also did other excesses like rebuilding sets because he was not satisfied with them, had delays because he filmed in Glacier national park which had huge winters.

    If there was any film that needed meddling it was this one. As the execs sat back and did nothing because Cimino had a contract that stated that the studio had to give him all the money and time he needed to get the film done.

    Unlike Malick, heavens gate was universally PANNED by everyone, NYT critic Vincent Camby called the film a "unmitigated disaster".
    As this was a film that was supposed to be a small 2-8 million dollar 90 minite film that became a 5 1/2 hour unwatchable debacle at 44 million.

  4. And the lesson is, don't do any movie with "Heaven" in the title, it will hurt your career.

  5. I saw your comments on Deadline Hollywood Daily, and started reading your site. You're a great writer, and really tell it like it is. Are you by any chance in LA as well? Do you happen to know anything about the next Party 43?

  6. -Preliman

    Thanks for the compliments.

    I live about as far away from LA as you can get and still be technically in continental North America.

    This blog is strictly an outsider's view of the business of show biz. So I won't be able to tell you about the next Party 43, it's a little to "insider" for me.

  7. I have a book called, "Money Art and Ego, the Unmaking of Heaven's gate."

    D I highly recommend reading this book, it is mostly from the point of view of the Studio execs but it clearly explains how that debacle was even allowed to happen.

  8. I've heard about it, and it's on my list of "must reads," and I'll hit up Amazon pretty soon, once I wade through my current reading list.